Playing Bad

fallout badguy

In my previous post on empathy and RPGs, I mentioned that I like to play different types of characters in games in order to try out different roles, and even different value systems. Right now I’m playing Fallout 4 (more on that game next post!), and I have three characters. One is basically a dumb brute named…Brutus (yeah, it’s not very original! If I get a chance to name pets in a game, they get names like Doggy, Piggy, or Eagly). He does whatever he is told and hits people with his fists and hammers and such. The two other characters are more interesting to me. One is a typical hero, out to save the world. The other is an egoist. She’s not evil, but she’s definitely selfish. She’s somewhere between Ayn Rand and Thomas Hobbes. She’ll help you, but she wants to know what she’ll get out of it. Then she’ll ask for more.

The problem is that while I find the egoist character interesting, I also have a hard time staying in character with her. I want to help out the people of the wasteland, and they are so desperate and poor that asking them for more money seems heartless. I do it because the character would do it, but I find her choice distasteful.

I was discussing this problem on Facebook, where my brother noted that he has the same problem. He can play a rogue character and steal things, but he still won’t sacrifice groups of people for his own ends. Another friend is playing through Knights of the Old Republic 1 (not to be confused with the newer MMORPG!). He’s trying to play the Dark Side, a choice that the game allows you to make. That game is brutal, though. To be “dark” leads you to do some pretty evil things. I’ve tried it, and I increasingly disliked my character. I didn’t even finish the Dark Side of that game. It was too troubling.

What does this mean? I think it reflects the empathy issues discussed in my previous post (here). A correlation between roleplaying and empathy could go in either direction. Perhaps roleplaying games teach us to be more empathetic toward others, or perhaps empathetic people are more drawn to the way roleplaying games allow us to visit another person’s life (fictional though it may be!). But some of us carry our empathy with us. We might enjoy seeing what a game has to offer in the way of moral choices, but that doesn’t make it easier to intentionally do something bad.

Of course, it’s just a game! We aren’t really sacrificing innocent people for our own ends. But I think there are some connections. In an article called “Monstrous Thoughts and the Moral Identity Thesis” Stephanie Patridge argues that the way that we think about even fictional characters in books, movies, and video games tells us something about our moral identities. Building on work by Berys Gaut, Patridge suggests that our intentionality toward fictional characters and situations can be evaluated morally, thus telling us something about our own ethics.

Presumably, this is only true if you actually identify with the fictional situation in some way, enough to actually have intentionality. So, if you are playing a bullet-hell SHMUP (shoot-em up!) in order to get a high score, you aren’t likely identifying with your onscreen avatar at all, much less with the hordes of ships/aliens/carebears/whatever that you are destroying. However, in a more immersive game like Fallout, many of us do immerse ourselves in the game in some way. The character we are playing has a story and motives, and so do the various NPCs we meet. As a result, how we act in the game and how we feel about our actions could tell us something about ourselves morally.

What do you think? Do our actions in games tell us anything about ourselves, morally? Does it depend on the game and the actions? Am I just overly sentimental when I worry about the poor settlers in the Fallout Wasteland, who carry all their possessions on a two-headed cow….I mean, Brahmin?

Empathy and Roleplaying Games

Welcome to the new blog! I want to discuss the ways that roleplaying games allow us to explore our own ethical boundaries, or even break them in a realm where the consequences are fictional. As gamers, we are given a wonderful opportunity to live in someone else’s mind and take a walk in other worlds. Doing so broadens our minds in so many ways, not just in terms of our moral beliefs. So let’s talk about empathy!

I recently discovered an article on Geek and Sundry (a great website and youtube channel if you enjoy roleplaying and/or board games) that put a spotlight on recent research suggesting that people who engage in fantasy or sci-fi roleplaying are more empathetic towards others. Here is the article:

I suggest you read it first. It’s short, and they deserve the traffic. In case you don’t have time, here’s a quick summary. The writer, Carol Pinchefsky, notes that a scientific study examined 127 people who play fantasy roleplaying games and found that according to empathy indexes, they rate higher than non-gamers. The correlation was significant (r=.43, for those who speak statistics!). Pinchefsky cleverly suggests “that gamers are really good at putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes/boots of speed”.

That’s my favorite part of playing an RPG! I like to make characters that have plans and values. This leads to cases of severe alt-itis (a “disease” characterized by creating many alternate characters that I play in order to approach the same game in different ways). So in Fallout 4, I have a character who really does want to make the world a better place while trying to find his loved one. He faces difficult ethical choices, especially in situations where two non-evil factions or characters have conflicting goals. He is torn on what to do, but will always go with what he thinks will produce the most good in the world.

Another character is more mercenary in her approach. She uses Charisma, Luck, and lockpicking skills to achieve materialistic goals. She’s not evil; but she is an egoist. She comes first, and she’ll squeeze you for every cap she can get, regardless of your situation.

In both cases, I try to empathize with the characters. I consider what motivates them. I relate more to the first character, who represents my ideal self. But I understand the second one, too. There are times in real life where I ask myself which of my options is most financially rewarding. I think we’ve all done that!

Still, both of these characters teach me something about myself, in positive and negative ways. When I smile at helping a stranger in the wasteland, or smirk when I persuade some poor sap to part with his last nuka cola, I’m learning things, both good and bad, about who I am. Hopefully, I take these lessons back into the world with me. If they do not make me a better person, perhaps they at least make me a more understanding person, capable of seeing why people do what they do and thus more capable of relating to them….for better or worse.

If RPGs do allow us to understand ethics better, it will only be because we are able to take the moral decisions of our characters seriously. In other words, we must be able to understand them as part of that characters phenomenological experience of the world, as part of who that character is as a living being. Not everyone who plays a video game will do this of course. If we are offered a choice in Fallout between saving a town, which rewards us with a laser rifle, and letting the town be overrun by raiders, which rewards us with a shotgun, there are many players who will choose based on the reward, and not on the ethics of the situation. In other words, they are simply playing a game, not taking on a role.

According to the study and its background literature, serious roleplayers engage in something called “absorption”. Put simply, that means we are likely to become absorbed in something to the point where our attention becomes so focused on what we are experiencing that we tend to be in the moment and can embrace characters in books or movies. I definitely feel that in games like Fallout. I have actual regrets about things that happen in the game, and real anxiety about what these post-apocalyptic survivors are going through.

Maybe that’s a necessary trait for learning anything about ethics through roleplaying. We have to be able to identify with what our characters are experiencing, and that means we have to take it seriously somehow. We can grow, morally, through these vicarious experiences, I think. But this is only possible if we can put ourselves in the boots of spe….errr….power armor of the people in the games we are playing!